Walter Dioni, a retrospective
by his daughter Alicia Dioni
Editor's note: Thank you to my colleague Mol Smith who liaised with Alicia.
From 2002 to 2011 Walter Dioni, Mexico shared over 60 often heavily illustrated articles on Micscape on a wide range of topics. They are all linked to in an index here and illustrate the breadth of his interests, his love of microscopic life and the microscope as a tool. English was not Walter's first language so especially impressive to share technical topics in a clear manner.
Sadly, Walter Dioni passed away amongst his family in September 2014 after an illness. His legacy to the microscopy community continues.
The suite 'Safe Microscopic Techniques for Amateurs' has been compiled into a book by site owner Mol Smith and available in various formats from here.
It truly is a pleasure for me to write about my father. This is, of course, a mere summary, though perhaps not very brief. I believe you will glimpse parts of his life that you may have been unaware of… perhaps as though it were the far side of the moon. I am not quite certain he would agree to my telling so many stories about him, but this is how I can portray him concisely.
I may jump around from story to story, but will try to keep some order.
My father showed a keen interest in science even as a young boy. My aunt tells me he would spend hours and hours locked up in his room devouring encyclopaedias. This served as an escape to avoid the pain of his father’s agony. Having lost his father, aged 39, to voracious liver cancer, he worked very hard to give his children the best of himself. My grandmother never remarried, so he suddenly became the man of the house. The grandson of Italian immigrants, father possessed a strong sense of family. His whole life he believed he would die at age 40, as his father had before him, and he wanted to leave us with only good memories.
He met my mother at a wedding when he was 18 years old and she 15. They were never apart after that, a courtship that lasted 8 years. They married on February 9, 1953, and remained together for 62 years.
My earliest memories of my father were of him on his motorcycle and the fun it was to go for a ride, the cold wind on our faces. His books… his microscope… I remember him mixing up paint and water and adding pigments and cornstarch so I could paint with my hands when I was practically still a babe. When I was a bit older, father taught me to extract the essence from our garden roses to make perfume.
We lived just two blocks away from the sea, and from the front door could watch the waves breaking. Father once asked my grandmother to make a special (almost spatial!) suit for me: I looked like a great big Ziploc bag! I must have been three years old.
He took me to the rambla (boardwalk) on a very windy, cloudy, cold day. The sea was wild, and it was very exciting to watch the big breakers crashing up against the rocks and spraying us like a waterfall till we were soaked.
In the evenings, at bedtime, he made up stories. We children played an active role and helped him create them. There was invariably a lesson taught in father’s stories… one where the characters were ants, ladybugs, or fish… he would go to great lengths to describe their diet and habitat!
On our outings to the park, his little box of jars and his net were always present. He taught me how to collect water samples in puddles and streams and then examine them under the microscope at home.
The kitchen table became a laboratory, with jars of formalin and specimens taking the place of ornaments. Words like invertebrate or rotifers did not seem strange to me at all. I found it normal to watch my father study for hours on end, while other children watched their fathers play football or read the newspaper.
He studied medicine until, as he told me, he felt that he had learned all he needed to know. As it was not his intention to become a physician, he quit his medical studies one year after he had embarked on his internship and devoted his efforts to studying microbiology and entomology. At the time, the study path for biology was non-existent as such, and he became self-taught.
In 1961, my father won a scholarship to work on his thesis at the Marine Biology Institute of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, at the San Sebastian laboratory where the Institute has a private beach. At the time, the laboratory was small, yet had a house to lodge groups of students who were there for field research.
Since he was to be there nearly one year, he did not want to go alone, and so took his entire family with him. As it turned out, it was the happiest year of my life and that of my brothers and sisters. Not so for my mother, who had to live in the middle of the jungle, isolated, without a telephone or television, and no company save that of some fishermen from neighbouring beaches. Not another soul around. The fastest way to get into town to buy supplies or see the doctor was by water in an outboard motorboat, and that took 30 minutes.
My brothers and sisters and I were father’s helpers; we collected samples of seawater, filtered the water for his work with the mussels, collected holothurians, or sea cucumbers, as they are also known. We saw a giant jellyfish and new flying fish. Altogether, we learned more about nature during those months than in all of our years in school together.
One day, one of the local fishermen came to ask for help. His dogs had given chase to a porcupine and their muzzles were full of quills. Father’s knowledge of medicine served him well to remove the quills after first putting the dogs to sleep using ether. Those dogs remembered that he was the one who had relieved them of pain!
Upon returning to our country, Uruguay, he devoted his time to teaching natural science at a secondary school. He scheduled outings and took his students to lakes to gather samples and subsequently study them under the microscope in the classroom.
Yet he needed more, both financially because the family had grown −four children and one on the way− and professionally, to continue growing and learning.
Father competed in a contest and won a position at the Limnology Institute in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina.
He was also passionate about photography. We children were all becoming adolescents, so he turned the garage into a photo lab–setting aside room for his jars of formalin and instruments, of course− and introduced us to the art of photography. He taught us to take photos, develop film, and print on photo paper. We all learned a lot, and, in fact, one of my brothers worked as a professional photographer for some time.
These are some of the works he published during that time:
DIONI, W. 1970. Resultados preliminares de la respirometría de ejemplares jóvenes de Prochilodus platensis (Holmberg). Rev. Asoc. Cienc. Nat. Litoral, Santa Fe, Argentina, 1: 3-4. ISSN 0325-2809.
Dioni, W. & J. L. REARTES. 1975. Susceptibilidad de algunos peces del Paraná medio expuestos a temperaturas extremas en condiciones de campo y laboratorio. Physis, B, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 34(89): 129-137. ISSN 0325-0350.
My father subsequently decided to accept a post as teacher and researcher in Buenos Aires.
These were difficult times in Argentina given the political situation: any young person, student or professor was at risk of persecution for their ideals, including my father, even though he did not take part in political activism or militancy. Being cultured was dangerous; thinking was dangerous. To be a student and be young was almost a crime.
My brothers and sisters were in secondary school, and myself at university, where the climate was very tense. My mother’s sister worked as an illustrator at a publishing house, and my uncle was an editor for an opinion journal. They were kidnapped and not heard of for three months. It was thanks to constant searching and pleas for help from my father to embassies and international agencies that after two years they were located, and sent to Sweden as political exiles.
They were fortunate enough to come out of this alive. Had one more year elapsed, that would likely not have been the outcome. Father did not want us children to be at risk, for although we carried out no political activism whatsoever, the mere fact of being related to persons who were arrested and his work at the university put us all at risk.
That was when he decided to seek work and move to Mexico. He worked as a researcher in Acapulco, and then moved to Hermosillo, in the northern state of Sonora, where he became a researcher and professor at the University of Sonora. After some time he was offered the position of Director of Water Resources, after which he retired from the active workforce. Given his age, he could no longer work, yet could not retire for not having met the requirements for a pension like everyone else, as a foreigner arriving in the country at the age he did. The same held true for Argentina and Uruguay… not enough years worked in any given country.
Exiled relatives, upon receiving compensation by virtue of persecution from the government of Argentina −despite the case being dismissed− gave my father a sum of money, with which he was able to purchase a small plot of land, upon which he built a party hall to rent out and secure some income.
The above, however, was not enough; we children always helped financially so our parents could have a good life in latter years. He never wanted more than he needed; he firmly believed that money is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.
It was then that he began to write for your journal. He was passionate about teaching what he had learned, sharing his knowledge and bringing science down to the level of the average person, especially young people, so they could ignite a passion for it.
My father’s financial ills worsened when hurricane Wilma destroyed his business’ roof. At the same time, he began to lose his sight.
I was living in New York at the time, working at a pastry shop; I was not there legally, and as such was unable to make very much money. My fellow workers, upon learning of the disaster, helped my sister Claudia and myself to collect money to repair the roof of father’s business.
It was then that his eyesight worsened. His microscope was his life, and if he lost his eyesight he felt he would have lost it all. There was no time to lose, not enough time for us to recover financially and scrape up enough money for surgery.
My brothers and sisters were also experiencing financial and family difficulties. We simply could not cover the expense of surgery. Help from the colleagues at the magazine was truly fantastic. He felt supported and valued by you all, and very grateful to those who made it possible for him to get help.
I am convinced he lived his life to the fullest, without luxuries but doing what he loved best: carrying out research to offer future solutions to the world. And, speaking of the future, over 50 years ago he told me that the ozone layer was getting thinner and that this would lead to skin cancer. He begged me not to sunbathe. He also spoke to me about global warming…
His was a brilliant mind. Father was concerned for the wellbeing of others, always showed solidarity, and helped those in need. When the time came that he needed help, all the good that he had sown bore fruit.
No, he was not perfect. He was human… sensitive, generous; he did not know how to make jokes, and the Italian blood in his veins could make him explosive. This, however, he always was: a good man.
There is more I could say, of course, much more. However, this will suffice to give you an idea of who he was.
Light, peace, love.
Published in the April 2020 edition of Micscape.
Please report any Web problems or offer general comments to the Micscape Editor .
Micscape is the on-line monthly magazine of the Microscopy UK web site at Microscopy-UK
Onview.net Ltd, Microscopy-UK, and all contributors 1995
onwards. All rights reserved.
Main site is at www.microscopy-uk.org.uk.